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Tampa Bay Rays hope they've found another bullpen gem in Juan Cruz

Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, left, works with Juan Cruz, a veteran reliever coming back from shoulder surgery who appears to be an early favorite to fill a hole in the bullpen.

JAMES BORCHUCK | Times

Rays pitching coach Jim Hickey, left, works with Juan Cruz, a veteran reliever coming back from shoulder surgery who appears to be an early favorite to fill a hole in the bullpen.

PORT CHARLOTTE — RHP Juan Cruz joined the Rays on Sunday looking very much like RHP Joaquin Benoit did last year, a big-league veteran with past bullpen success coming off surgery and on a minor-league deal.

"Not a bad comparison," manager Joe Maddon said.

The Rays could only dream Cruz, 32, works out as well as Benoit, who led all AL relievers with a 1.34 ERA (then left for a three-year, $16.5 million deal with Detroit).

First Cruz has to make the team, and with a dozen pitchers competing for the three open spots in the bullpen, he has two distinct advantages:

• A power arm said to be fully recovered from May shoulder surgery that ended his 2010 season that started in Kansas City.

• A resume that includes several impressive season in the majors, most recently 2008 in Arizona when he went 4-0 with a 2.61 ERA in 57 games with 71 strikeouts in 512/3 innings.

"Physically and the fact he's done it before makes him very intriguing," Maddon said. "He's right in the mix of everything. He's got the experienc, and he's got the stuff, and all those things matter to us."

Maddon said Cruz has "a good chance" and later said "a very good chance," and also that "getting to know him is going to be interesting."

Cruz said he signed with the Rays as much for the job openings as the atmosphere around the team, noting the young core and recent run of success.

"I'm trying to take advantage of the opportunity," he said. "They gave it to me, and I'm trying to do my best. I feel very comfortable I can pitch good and make the team."

HELLICKSON UPDATE: RHP Jeremy Hellickson was kept off the field for a third straight day due to his mild right hamstring strain but said he is feeling better and isn't concerned about it becoming an issue.

Hellickson did some activities in the trainer's room and could be allowed to play catch today, though the Rays haven't decided when he'll return to full action.

"I definitely want to get back out there," he said. "There's not really much concern, we're just being cautious with it. It's feeling a lot better the last two days."

GROUP HUG: Though just about all the position players have been working out here, Maddon said he was still looking forward to having the whole group assembled this morning for the start of full-squad workouts.

"It is good to get them together," Maddon said, "and that is who we have to be. We have to be together. We, to be successful, really have to embrace the organizational philosophy. We have to all buy in, we have to be on the same page, the same sheet of music, whatever you want to call it. … So being together to us is really important."

Maddon, along with other team officials, will address the full group and said he will have a different angle than he gave the pitchers and catchers, which focused on opportunity.

With Cruz and nonroster INF Ray Olmedo reporting Sunday, only two of the 62 players didn't come in early — nonroster INFs Joe Inglett (who just signed Friday) and Daniel Mayora. Both are expected today.

MISCELLANY: Manny Ramirez was signed to DH but will participate in outfield drills and, Maddon said, could make some exhibition game appearances. … At Saturday's FanFest, Maddon met with the wife and father of slain St. Petersburg police Officer Jeffrey Yaslowitz.

Tampa Bay Rays hope they've found another bullpen gem in Juan Cruz 02/20/11 [Last modified: Sunday, February 20, 2011 9:16pm]

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